Tuesday, October 11, 2011

SPORTS >> Falcons, Bears still eye playoffs

Leader sportswriter

Local teams collide this week when Sylvan Hills makes the brief journey up Hwy. 107, onto Jacksonville Cutoff and up Harris Road to Falcon Stadium for a 5A-Southeast Conference game against winless North Pulaski. The neighboring rivals haven’t put together a pretty season so far, but each still has at least an outside shot at the playoffs.

Sylvan Hills, 2-1 in league play, is sitting much prettier than the winless Falcons. North Pulaski faced the toughest portion of its conference schedule in the first three weeks. With the Bears, Mills and Crossett coming up, wins in all three games still give the Falcons a shot at their first playoff appearance in school history.

The Bears improved to 2-1 in conference play last week with a 13-12 victory over Crossett in a game where Sylvan Hills sputtered on offense until the final minute. The Bears went 76 yards in just over a minute to keep the Eagles winless. The win was similar to Sylvan Hills’ narrow 7-6 victory over Mills University Studies the week before.

The Falcons have competed hard despite final scores that do not necessarily indicate how well they have played at times.

North Pulaski, 0-6 overall under first-year coach Teodis Ingram, lost 30-7 to West Helena Central to start its 5A-Southeast Conference schedule before falling 40-14 to Watson Chapel and 49-14 on the road last week at White Hall.

“The games we’ve seen, they’ve played hard,” Sylvan Hills coach Jim Withrow said. “They have some smaller guys on defense this year, but they’re real fast to the ball. They played well against White Hall. I think the score looked worse than what it actually was.

“They look good from what we’ve seen. They’re well coached, they get to the ball fast on defense, and their tailback (Derrick Hart) looks pretty good.”

For the Bears’ offense, junior quarterback J.D. Miller has become the X-factor. Miller sustained a shoulder injury the week before the Mills game, and was limited to hand offs.

That was also the situation for most of the game against Crossett last week, but with the Bears trailing 12-7 late with no timeouts, Miller dug down and led a scoring charge in which he went 5 for 7 for 76 yards, including a 6-yard strike to senior receiver Anthony Featherstone in the end zone with five seconds remaining.

A healthy Miller could spell trouble for North Pulaski, but a limited Miller could make the Bears one dimensional again this week.

“Who knows?” Withrow said. “We want to try and mix it up a little bit – get some play action in there. We don’t know how much he can actually throw. It all depends on his shoulder. I think if he can get in there and mix it up, we’ll be okay.”

Both teams have had their issues with losing key personnel to injuries. Senior fullback Willie Frazier returned to the lineup for North Pulaski last week after spending time off for a hamstring injury, but the Falcons didn’t have Hart in the loss to White Hall, and he’s still questionable for this week.

The Bears have lost players to injuries and discipline issues, but found a spark last week in sophomore running back Quincy Flowers, who looked solid running on a number of sweep plays against Crossett.

“He’s one of these guys that’s worked hard all year,” Withrow said. “He’s a good athlete, and he’s taken advantage of some of the injuries we’ve had. He’s done a fantastic job playing defense and special teams also.”

Although the Falcons are winless this season and have not beaten Sylvan Hills on the gridiron since the two teams entered the same conference in 2008, Withrow is in no mood to underestimate anyone after a couple of near losses the past two weeks. “I don’t take anyone lightly,” Withrow said. “We’ve won two games by one point in the last minute the last two weeks – we’re not taking anything lightly.”